The beautiful Borromean Islands are located in the middle of Lake Maggiore, to the north of Milan in Italy. Known for their unique architecture and stunning gardens, there are three Borromean Islands: Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori (also called Isola Superiore) and Isola Madre. The islands are all owned by the Borromeo family, who first acquired them all the way back in the sixteenth century. Here is how to take a day trip to the Borromean Islands from Milan, or from the nearby town of Stresa.
How to Get to Borromean Islands
The Borromean Islands (sometimes also called the Borromeo Islands) are easily accessed by ferry from Stresa, Italy, a small town on the western side of Lake Maggiore (called Lago Maggiore in Italian). Stresa is around an hour by train from Milan. Prices start from €8.60 each way on the regional trains. If you would like a slightly quicker, more comfortable, trip on a more luxurious train, take the Eurocity trains for €17.50 each way.
For train times, head over to the Trenitalia website. I have found this site to be great to work out times and prices for trains all over Italy.
Tip: I recommend booking as much in advance as you can – two weeks is ideal – tickets can get more expensive as the date comes closer.
The ferry from Stresa costs €15 for a hop-on hop-off ticket for the whole day, allowing you to visit all the islands at your leisure. The Stresa to Isola Bella ferry runs every half an hour.
While there are no direct flights to Borromean Islands, the nearest major airport is Milan Malpensa (MXP) airport which is 31km away. To get to Stresa, a taxi or Uber will take about 45 minutes, or a combination of bus/train or just train will take just under two hours.
Click to navigate the Borromean Islands map below
Literally translated as “beautiful island”, Isola Bella is the first island the Stresa ferry comes to. Originally it got it’s name from Isabella D’Adda, the wife of Carlo III who began the tranformation from a fishing village. It contains a stunning palazzo that has seen visitors of the likes of Napoleon and Josephine over the years. Work first started on the building in 1630, and it has continued on and off ever since. In 2013 it was fully restored and is now open for visitors.
As you get off the ferry to Isola Bella you will be right on the front door step of the palazzo. If you don’t already have a ticket, buy one here to go inside and have a look. Grab an audioguide too if you would like to learn more about what you are about to see.
Many of the rooms have been set up how they were at some time in the past. They showcase some lovely antique furniture and important artworks, and many other family heirlooms and treasures. The tour of the building starts on the top floor and works it’s way down.
One aspect of this Borromean Islands Palazzo Borromeo (there are many Palazzo Borromeo’s all over Italy – this family is very well off!) that makes it stand out from many of the other magnificent houses is the Grotto. This part of the house was built as a summer house, and is entirely covered in pebbles and shells. It provided a cool place for the family to retreat in the warmer months.
From the cool of the grotto you will emerge out into the Isola Bella gardens. If the house didn’t impress you, the gardens surely will. They are built over ten levels, with the centre piece being a stunning structure topped with a unicorn, the symbol of the Borromean family. As you wander the gardens, you will probably soon come across a whole group of visitors crowded around. Go and take a look because you will likely see one of the Borromean Islands points of interest, the white peacocks. They will likely be showing off for the cameras, and completely stealing the show from the beautiful surroundings.
If you only have time for one, then visit Isola Bella. Leave about 2-3 hours for your visit here. The Isola Bella visiting hours are 9am to 5:30pm.
When you get back on the ferry to the next island, you will notice it is called by its other name of Isola Superiore. Confusingly, it could also be called Isola dei Pescatori (which means Fisherman’s Island). This island, while owned by the Borromeo family, was never developed and is now the only island that has permanent residents on it. It was predominantly a fishing community, but it seems as though tourism may have taken over as the main industry. Almost the entire shore of the island is dotted with restaurants and cafes overlooking the water. There are also many stands selling souvenirs and local crafts. Here is the place to grab some lunch and soak up the small island atmosphere before moving on to island three.
This island is the largest of the three and was the first one to be settled. It is mostly covered by gardens containing interesting and rare plants from all over the world. There are also many different birds living on the island, including a few white peacocks and their more common cousins. Walking around the gardens in the heat of the day is pleasant, with some great views across the lake back to the mainland.
The palazzo on the island showcases more of the family’s furniture and artworks gathered over the years. Towards the end there is a display of children toys, puppets and theatre props, as the family was well known for the performances they hosted.
Next to the house is a small but pretty family chapel. The pond in front of it has some particularly noisy frogs living in it that make some crazy noises. They can be enjoyed as you sip a coffee from the cafe around the corner. You may also be lucky enough to enjoy the company of some of the other birdlife on the island.
Note: there is actually a tiny, fourth, Borromean Island called Isolino di San Giovanni. It’s further away from the other islands and is not open for visitors.
Borromean Islands Tickets
The islands are seasonal, and are only available to visit during the peak summer season. In 2020 it was between late March and early November, but of course things were slightly disrupted due to the pandemic. If you are travelling near the cutoff dates, it is best to check their website here to make sure you know they are open.
There are lots of different options for visiting the Islands. It is possible to visit one, all three, or all three plus another palazzo owned by the family on the mainland. There is no cost to visit Isola Pescatori. A pass to visit both Isola Bella and Isola Madre on the same day is €24. Guided tours are available, as are audiotours. For more information on the many options, visit the official website here.
All Inclusive Tours or Something Special?
How about these for some ideas for your Borromean Islands visit? Click on the links for more information and pricing.
- Lake Maggiore Day Trip from Milan – you will be picked up from central Milan and transferred by air-conditioned coach to Stresa where your local guide will take you on a boat tour to the islands
- VIP Helitour including lunch from Milan – You will be picked up from your Milan hotel and fly over the Northern Lakes including Lake Como, Lake Lugano and the Borromean Islands
- Private Tour of the Borromean Islands from Stresa – this private tour will pick up from your hotel in Stresa and go at your own pace for the day. Your guide will give you all the information about the islands and their history.
Looking for Somewhere to Stay?
There are hundreds of options when looking at where to stay in Milan. Here are a few ideas
- Hi! Ostello Milano – for the budget traveller, this hostel has not only dorm rooms, but private double, twin and family rooms too
- B&B Hotel Milano Central Station – for a nice, three star hotel, this place is well located with lovely rooms
- B&B Milano Bella – for a true bed and breakfast experience, try the highly-rated Milano Bella
- Château Monfort – Relais & Châteaux – this beautiful five star hotel has to be seen to be believed. This is my pick for my next visit
- Armani Hotel Milano – totally over my budget, but for a true splurge, you cannot go past the incredible Armani hotel!
Here are some options if you prefer to stay in Stresa and enjoy the Lake Maggiore region for longer
- Appartamento Belvedere – This highly rated budget apartment offers lake views and everything you need to enjoy your own space
- Hotel Saini – a neat, three star hotel with a great price
- Hotel Regina Palace – incredible hotel with grotto pool right on the lake. The beautiful decor has to be seen
- Hotel La Palma – completely different but just as beautiful as the other Stresa hotels
Whether you will be staying in Milan, or prefer longer to visit Stresa and the Lake Maggiore area, I use and recommend Booking.com. I love being able to book accommodation with no hidden costs and free cancellation in case my plans change. This means if I see something that looks good, I can book even if my travel plans haven’t all been made, and I know I can cancel with no cost if it doesn’t work out.
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.